Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is famous for inventing utilitarianism – the doctrine that states that the right action is that which brings about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Bentham believed that the fundamental motive of human action is to seek pleasure; accordingly, pleasure (happiness) is identical to right action. Bentham’s psychological and ethical hedonism has been widely discredited; he himself acknowledged the limitations of his initial theory. But whatever the specific mistakes of his theory, its basic idea is intuitively attractive; surely an action that makes everyone
more happy must be morally right? Bentham wrote on virtually all aspects
of philosophy, but his ethical and political philosophy have been accorded
John Locke’s political theory provoked a great deal of criticism. The
Irish politician Edmund Burke (1729–97) argued that abstract notions
of natural rights (like Locke’s) are too simplistic, and do not bear any relation to the social complexities of modern life. Burke, however, did
admit that there might be some real natural rights; Bentham denied this
possibility altogether. Unlike Locke and most other political philosophers, Bentham did not publish one work which contained all his political ideas. He wrote many short works, and it can be quite difficult to pin down his definitive opinion, as he changed his views several times. His criticism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen made by the French Constituent Assembly in 1791 is the best source for his thoughts on natural rights.
The Rejection of Natural Rights
Bentham first wrote on the subject of rights in response to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. When he read the Declaration (see the introduction to this section), he declared that the notion of natural rights was ‘nonsense upon stilts’, and he subsequently devoted a lot of time to rebutting natural rights theories. In 1801 he completed a critique of the French Declaration of Rights (following the bloody French Revolution): it was titled simply Pestilential Nonsense Unmasked. Why did Bentham think that natural rights were nonsense?
Bentham’s basic objection was that legal rights are grounded in fact, whilst natural rights are not (this is very similar to the second objection to natural rights in the section on Locke). My right to a fair trial is enshrined in Scottish law: if anyone questions this right, he or she can go to a law library, look up the appropriate book, and find the law that entitles me to the right. But if there were no government, no legislature, and no laws, this right would disappear: where there is no real law there can be no right. Bentham (typically) puts it more strongly:
‘Right.…is the child of law; from real laws come real rights; but from imaginary laws, from laws of nature, fancied and invented by poets, rhetoricians, and dealers in moral and intellectual poisons, come imaginary rights, a bastard brood of monsters, gorgons and chimaeras dire.’ Bentham believed that the notion of natural rights was a dangerous artifice, born of the misuse and misunderstanding of the word ‘right’, and that this misuse of ‘right’ (particularly among English speakers) had led to the dangerous championing of natural rights as the basis of civilised society. If we examine our use of the word, we can establish exactly where we have gone wrong in our consideration of rights.
The Linguistic Argument
Bentham’s linguistic argument against natural rights asks us to consider
an example. If you have a mobile phone (not his example), and I
recognise that this piece of property belongs to you, I will believe that
you ought to possess it. This is the same (more or less) as saying that it is right that you possess your phone. This in turn implies that you are entitled to legal protection if someone tries to take it from you. Now let us imagine that I go further, and say that you have a right to your phone. This is different. Let’s look at the two statements side by side:
1. ‘It is right that you possess your phone.’
2. ‘You have a right to possess your phone.’
Bentham thinks that these two sentences are subtly different, and that the difference is of the utmost importance. In number 1, ‘right’ is used in a sense that conveys the moral rectitude of the situation: if you possess your phone, the situation is a right one. The use of ‘right’ here is similar to ‘just’; it is this quality that alludes to the legal protection of your possession. This is what Bentham calls ‘the language of peace’.
In number 2, ‘right’ is used in a much more confrontational sense; if you have a right to the phone, it implies that you have a right to use force to protect that right. Thus, you can assault anyone who attempts to take the phone. It seems perfectly natural that you are entitled to use force to protect your property; hence, we call this right a natural right. Bentham calls this ‘the language of mischief’.
It is easy to see how we can subconsciously glide from the first usage of ‘right’ to the second; Bentham thinks that this unintentional misuse of the word is what has led to the notion of natural rights. He calls the second usage the language of mischief because people who believe they have these natural rights will use force to protect them, and this can only lead to mischief, or pain. Bentham admits that we do sometimes talk of right in the second sense, but insists that legal rights are the only genuine rights.
To anyone who objected that Bentham’s argument is merely linguistic, he had this to say: ‘The criticism is verbal, true, but what else can it be? Words – words without a meaning, or with a meaning too obviously false to be maintained by anybody, are the stuff it [the French Declaration of Rights] is made of. Look to the letter, you find nonsense; look beyond the letter, you find nothing.’
Human Rights versus Natural Rights
While on the subject of linguistics, it is worth noting that human rights nowadays are not the same as natural rights. Human rights now have a
quasi-legal status because of the United Nations Declaration. Thus,
Bentham’s objection that rights require laws is not really valid unless we
talk of natural rights. In terms of philosophy, it is best to talk about ‘natural human rights’ to avoid confusion with those enshrined in international law.
It has been argued by some critics that, even if Bentham’s linguistic argument is valid, and he is right that natural rights have no legal foundation, natural human rights can still be justified in terms of moral intuition: slavery just feels immoral, and rights seem to be the best way to guard against such tyrannical institutions. After all, how is it that legal rights come about? Generally speaking, this happens via a process of implementation of laws that mirror people’s moral intuitions. Looked at this way, both natural rights and legal rights have the same ultimate source in our own psychology. But to base a system of morals on subjective intuitions has a whole host of problems of its own. In the end, Bentham’s criticism is perhaps more telling than it first seems.
Like Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx (1818–83) is not famous for his critique of natural rights, but for another of his works: The Communist Manifesto. Marx devoted his life to the revolutionary cause of communism. He believed that everyone is dependent on society, both in terms of their character and their potential to achieve. Fundamental to his theory was his view that the morals and institutions of a society are the product of economic interests; the ideology of each society exists only to justify its interests. This contradicts most people’s belief that they believe what they believe because it is right. Marx also believed that capitalism degrades the value of human life by reducing it to a commodity. Consequently, capitalist societies must be overthrown in a workers’ revolution. Given that he was a revolutionary, one might imagine that Marx would be in favour of natural rights, as they provide grounds for insurrection. But Marx had great doubts about theories of natural rights, particularly when they were used to justify revolutions like the American and the French. His criticism has certain similarities to Bentham’s, but is substantially different.
For Marx the revolution of the proletariat (the workers) was necessary to end the degradation of human life under capitalism; it was also a necessary consequence of social and historical forces. The revolution comes about, not because it is fomented, but because a majority of workers realise that they have no reason to support the bourgeois values of liberty and individuality. They revolt in order to restructure
society (not to redistribute wealth, which is an aim of bourgeois theories of justice) in a way that would allow everyone to contribute as much as possible to society, and to benefit as much as possible from society. The problem with this idealistic view is that Marx never makes it clear what form this society would take. Nonetheless, his view of a society based entirely on community rather than individuals has been of colossal influence.
To use his own words, Marx thinks that all (non-communist) ideologies come about because of our ‘false consciousness’. Thus, as mentioned above, we do not believe that murder is wrong because it is wrong, (although that is why we think we believe it), but because it supports our society’s economic interests to believe that it is wrong. The same goes for our belief in natural rights: we believe in them because it supports our class interests to do so, not because they really exist. Thus, natural rights are not some universal protection that everyone has: they are the product of a capitalist mindset. This might sound unlikely, but Marx explains quite convincingly how natural rights are individualistic and separatist, as he believed capitalism was.
Quite apart from the issue of false consciousness, Marx’s fundamental objection to natural rights is that they are selfish. They support the egoistic, self-satisfying aspect of our personality, and neglect our true identity, which is the community-oriented side of our personality. Marx highlights the difference between these two aspects, he makes the distinction between the egoistic man and the species-being. The egoistic man does not care what his neighbour, or anyone else in society does, so long as they leave him alone. He is concerned only with his own interests, lives in isolation, and has no sense of community. Conversely, the species-being regards the society he lives in as an extended family, and involves himself in the interests and projects of the other people in his community.
How do natural rights support the egoist and not the species-being? Marx analyses different rights, and explains how each of them reinforces the selfish aspects of character. The right to liberty (as described by Locke) says that I can do whatever I want as long as I do not interfere with others. This sounds perfectly reasonable, but Marx thinks that this right to do what I want distances me from the others who I am not allowed to harm, and as such erodes any sense of community with others.
Similarly, the right to property allows me to use and dispose of my possessions as I wish, without regard for others. The right to security simply perpetuates our isolated status, and if everyone is equal then they have no need to interact.
Marx’s point is that all these natural rights are isolationist: they support the individual but work against any sense of community amongst individuals. The only sense of community in a society based on a system of natural rights will be the mutual desire for security, and this security itself exacerbates individualism. This is similar to Bentham’s view inasmuch as the species-being speaks the language of peace, and the egoistic man speaks the language of mischief; he is only in it for his own gain.
Problems with Marx’s Theory
1. It is certainly true that the architects of the American and French revolutions put a great deal of emphasis on the rights of the individual. But the point is that they had to do so to defend themselves against oppressive regimes. Only by appealing to each person’s rights as human beings could they hope to succeed in their revolutions. All an oppressed person really wants to say is ‘leave me alone!’. This sounds isolationist, but is really only a demand for oppression to end. Marx neglects the fact that the language of rights is fundamentally designed to prohibit oppression by a greater power, not to enhance the egoistic elements of our personalities.
2. Connected with the first objection is the point that Marx assumes that we can only be egoistic or community-minded. Obviously there are some people who only care about themselves, and there may be some who care only about the community at large, but most of us care about ourselves and our communities. (In times of great oppression, it is simple human nature to look after yourself first. Consequently, the ‘selfish’ language of the revolutionaries is perhaps the most fundamental of all.)
Negative and Positive Rights
Successive natural rights theorists have preserved the self-oriented nature of the early theorists and combined it with rights that pay more attention to the needs of the community. Rights that protect the individual are most often known as negative rights: I have the right to do as I want, and the right for you to leave me alone. Rights that involve help from others, such as the rights to food and healthcare, are known as positive rights. Positive rights cannot operate without other people,
and as such avoid Marx’s criticism that rights work against a sense of community. But despite the current public opinion that there are universal human rights, it remains to be seen whether such a concept has sound philosophical justification.
1. What is the difference between human (natural) rights and other rights?
2. Why are human rights important?
3. Are some human rights more important than others? Which are the most important? Why? Explain your answer.
4. Are human rights universal? (Think about the problems posed by children, criminals and the mentally ill.)
5. Does it matter that human rights are not derived from any laws?
6. Does working on something mean that you have a right to it?
(Think of Locke’s right to property.)
7. Which are more important: negative rights or positive rights? Why? Explain your answer.
8. Is Marx correct when he says that rights are too individualistic, and neglect the community-oriented part of ourselves? Explain your answer.
9. What things do we not have a right to? (For example, is it coherent to say we have a right to health, rather than healthcare?)
10. Is a system of natural or human rights a substantial enough basis for the structure of a society?
Further reading Generally speaking, there are more (philosophical) books about justice than about rights. Most introductions to political philosophy deal with some of the different theories of justice; for reading on rights, more specific books must be sought.
Diggs, B J, The State, Justice, and the Common Good, Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1974
Kymlicka, W, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991
Wolff, J, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Oxford: OUP, 1996
These are all valuable introductions. Diggs has many lengthy quotes from Locke, Rousseau, Hume and Rawls. Kymlicka is good on utilitarianism, Rawls, Nozick and Marx’s theory of justice (but not his views on rights). Wolff is particularly good on Mill, Rousseau and Plato.
Feinberg, J (ed.), Reason and Responsibility, Wadsworth, 1999
Used as an introductory text by the University of Edinburgh, this excellent anthology mixes classic texts with contemporary commentary, and covers epistemology, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of mind, as well as morality and justice.
Melden, A I (ed.), Human Rights, California: Wadsworth, 1970
Part of a ‘Basic Problems in Philosophy’ series, this anthology consists of selections from Locke, Bentham and some modern rights theorists, as well as an excellent appendix that includes the most important declarations of human rights.
Parekh, B (ed.), Bentham’s Political Thought, London: Croom Helm, 1973
This is an overview of Bentham’s political philosophy; it contains all his important writings on rights.
Rawls, J, Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993
This provides a more up-to-date version of John Rawls’ theory than that in A Theory of Justice.